Social Justice
Issue   |   Tue, 03/05/2013 - 23:52

During the EDU meeting two weeks ago, Larissa Davis ’13,a member of a committee working on changes to the MRC, asked attendants to give recommendations for desirable qualifications of the new MRC Interim Director sought to be hired in the coming months. Last Tuesday, the College posted a job description designed with student input and meant to attract the applicants most suited for the position. Many of the students at the EDU meeting enthusiastically spoke and several commented on the necessity that the Interim Director come from a social justice background. While I commend the committee for its efforts to include student voices in this process, the best candidate for Interim Director will not be someone with a social justice background. Due to the social and political ideals inherent in social justice, having the lead person in charge of the MRC come from such a background will be inevitably exclusionary. I do not mean to say that someone from a social justice background will intentionally create an atmosphere that is uncomfortable for certain groups of students on campus, but because of the way in which a social justice perspective tends to frames arguments about race and class, the MRC will not feel like a safe space for some students under such leadership.

In order for the MRC to become a meaningful institution, it needs to function in a way that promotes real inclusivity ­— inclusivity that goes beyond often-times deterministic arguments for racial and ethnic diversity that exclude political and ideological diversity. The way in which the College has repeatedly presented issues of diversity since President Anthony Marx’s tenure has been to emphasize the importance of including minority and economically disadvantaged students in our community. Such an understanding, however, is insufficient if the school wants to promote genuine discussion among its students, since it creates an automatic divide between those students who “increase diversity” and those who do not. Having the MRC be led by someone coming from a social justice perspective is likely to have the same divisive effect.

Social justice has no real meaning; it is used almost exclusively as a politically convenient code word for redistribution. Because social justice implies the existence of a form of structural social injustice that needs to be actively fought, it is a phrase that ignores the multi-causal nature of inequity in American society and places blame on certain groups. It is true that our world is unjust, but the notion of justice promoted through this conception is highly flawed because it assumes that people, by virtue of their backgrounds, either belong to the category of the oppressed or that of the oppressor. While there is a space for those thought to be oppressed to empower themselves and for those marked as the oppressor to function as positive agents of change, this is still a divisive assumption. It stems from the belief that inequity results primarily, perhaps even exclusively, from an injustice perpetuated by the privileged against the underprivileged and, perhaps inadvertently, promotes guilt within those groups that are considered to be privileged. Under the framework of social justice there is little space for individual achievement because everything you do is tied to who you are, and who you are is defined by your group’s narrative of subjection to greater structural forces based on historical power inequities. To have someone that accepts these notions as the head of the MRC will only reinforce the divisions already present on campus.

An MRC Interim Director with a social justice-based background will act on the implications of that understanding, considering this a good way of empowering our underprivileged students and educating our privileged ones. In fact, all that will be achieved will be to push the seemingly more privileged students even further away from the MRC. Though it is true that many students already believe the MRC is not a space for them, that is no excuse to make this space appear unwelcoming. While the director may be well-intentioned, it is unlikely that his or her programming will appeal to students who do not already have an interest in social justice because their understanding of their role will necessarily involve the perpetuation of these ideas. Discussions of privilege are not meant to be accusatory, but often times they are. Last semester, as one of the discussion leaders for the Day of Dialogue, I saw how calls to dismantle privilege put certain peoples on the defensive. The group I co-led was composed primarily of white, affluent male athletes and it was easy to see that they felt attacked by Professor Cobham-Sander’s presentation on privilege; even the white male facilities staff member in our group seemed uncomfortable. At first all discussion was stifled because these men felt labeled as oppressors, as perpetrators of rape or willing bystanders. As soon as the conversation moved away from the accusatory tone of privilege, these students opened up and had insightful recommendations for needed changes. As a community, we need to make sure that our campus promotes inclusive dialogue, not the blaming and awkward floor-staring that results from the politically-motivated perspective of social justice. The MRC, if it is to have a real purpose on campus, needs to make all students feel welcome, not just those who agree with the agenda inherent in social justice.

Though it may not be the worst amongst its peers, Amherst College is notorious for putting the liberal in liberal arts education. From anonymous attacks on The Student website after Andrew Kaake’s pro-life article last year, to gleeful comments concerning the retirement of conservative professors and distinguished scholars Hadley Arkes and Walter Nicholson, to private ridicules of the Amherst College Republicans regardless of their impressive work in the last few months, hostility against conservative ideals is rampant on our campus. The hiring of an Interim Director from a social justice background will aggravate this hostility. The ideology that informs the social justice understanding is one based on the idea that equity should be the aim of social and political institutions. It demands the primacy of the collective over the individual and is therefore perfectly in line with contemporary liberal agendas demanding increased welfare benefits. To hire an Interim Director from a social justice background will be an implicit endorsement of these politics. Already the campus promotes liberal ideas in the way in presents certain issues to its students, but to continue this pattern with the one person whose primary purpose is to promote inclusivity on campus is going much too far. This move will serve as the College’s way of saying that conservative values and ideologies are not really welcome here, that notions of inclusivity go only as far as race, ethnicity and socio-economic status will allow.

In the abstract, it seems like a good idea to hire an Interim Director from a social justice background. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Our campus is already divided, with many students feeling as though they have no authority to speak about these issues because their background is not “diverse” enough. When I wrote an article last semester criticizing affirmative action, I received emails from students and professors alike that felt as I did, but could not articulate those feelings because they feared being publically attacked as people who could not understand the struggles of minority students. One alum wrote a caustic blog post about me in which he argued my ideas were wrong simply because I looked too white to actually understand what it means to be a person of color in America; he had never seen me in person or spoken with me. When it comes to issues of diversity and inclusivity at Amherst, we need to move beyond what we know will only perpetuate the divisions on campus. We need to do this because it matters, because it is of dire importance that we create one community, not many disparate ones.

Everyone at Amherst has been excluded at some point or another, even those within groups that are generally thought of as privileged. This past weekend, a seemingly racially-motivated prank occurred on campus. At approximately four in the morning on Saturday, a student discovered that piles of white powder were left in front of the doors of the white male students living in the second floor of Moore dormitory. Because the resident counselor responded quickly to the incident, the police wrote a report and the powder was cleaned up before many knew anything had happened. That was it. No campus-wide email. No discussion. Having spoken to a student that actually witnessed this event, I know they were deeply troubled, but no one else seemed to care. Last semester, there was a huge backlash when the n-word was found written in snow, and rightfully so. Why is it, however, that attacks against students that are generally labeled as privileged do not garner such attention? Something is wrong at Amherst and it needs to be addressed now by reframing our discussions about inclusivity. We need to think critically about what we need the MRC to be in our community, and the first step in doing so is to realize that social justice is not the best means to promote true inclusivity. We need a great leader to be our Interim Director, but that leader should not have a social justice background.

Anchor
Comments
Anon'11 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 13:28

I'm sure you'll get backlash for this, but you completely hit the nail on the head. The MRC has an important role to play, but not if it turns into an identity politics echo chamber that--most disturbingly--inspires people of underrepresented groups to think of themselves as victims and leads to the "your rights end where my feelings begin" school of thought.

Bullshit Police (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 18:54

How is demanding and actively fighting for our rights a sign that we think of ourselves as victims? Hm... I would think that is the total opposite of victimhood. Also, here is my message to people who feel guilty over their privileges: "MY rights end where your feelings begin" since we can't ever talk about privilege or address STRUCTURAL inequality without it turning into a conversation about how people feel guilty over their privileges or feel "attacked".

Anon '11 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 22:36

Hey, if someone can't enter into a conversation about social power structures without feeling attacked, then I agree--they're being whiny and unproductive. Don't get me wrong--I'm not one of those knee-jerk morons who goes "but that's reverse racist!" or "why don't we have White History Month hurrr durrr." I get it, I do, and I'm sympathetic.

But in my personal experiences, when I've engaged with people and environments which give themselves the social justice label, I've seen a set of practices and rhetorical techniques that are antithetical to intelligent thought.These include:

1) Double standards for personal experiences (the feelings of the 'oppressed' must be guarded at all costs, and their personal narratives are always valid; experiences of the 'privileged' come from their privilege blinders and can be dismissed)
2) The dismissal out of hand of commonly accepted sources of authority (dictionaries, scientific concepts) because they clash with someone's personal belief or because blah blah a dead white man did it so it's RACIST.
3) The assumption that because of power asymmetries in society tend to silence the underprivileged, social justice spaces that have collateral damage on the "privileged" are fine and dandy (if you need to know why this is a problem, check out the stu-freaking-pendous "Genocides of the Opressed" by Adam Jones--there's a copy in Frost, and it kicks ass!), which leads to hilarious double standards for argumentation and rhetoric that wouldn't be tolerated anywhere in a discussion among critical thinkers.
4) The fetishization of some identities (gender identity, sex and sexual orientation, skin color) as mattering more than others (class is of course the most common example)

And I'm not saying that all such spaces are like that, but I have been (and people I know have been) made to feel unwelcome and distrusted in such places, and so when I start to hear social justice and its attendant phrases being thrown around, I start getting skeptical. The MRC is important, and so are these conversations--it needs more than to be a real-life version of a Tumblr SJ blog.

Liz Alexander (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 15:55

Unfortunately, Katrin, the time has long passed that we as a school, and as people who will soon enter society at large, should pander to the interests of those who are racially, socioeconomically, or gender privileged. It is literally undeniable that this school loves nothing more than to tout its statistical diversity as proof that privilege is meaningless and we're all happy equals, while a number of events over the past months have shown that this school runs on pleasing the trustees and the donor alumni: a large group of people with a large amount of privilege. A school that drives towards maintaining its privilege is not going to effectively investigate its own practices and the well-being of its less privileged students, because that will inevitably mean changes that those all-powerful donors aren't going to want to make, and thus an MRC that is willing to engage with these issues and try to enact some social justice is absolutely critical. You may disagree, Katrin, but as I recall from the EDU meeting there were a number of students who felt that a director with social justice experience was necessary, and unless we are all part of a secret organization aimed at infiltrating the structures of this school and offending people on a whim, it seems that there are a number of students who believe in the aims of social justice and see a need for it on this campus.
Furthermore, the assumption that someone dedicated to social justice will actively exclude those that are privileged is simply wrong. Social justice is not about blaming rich white people for every social problem that exists in the world, it is about being positive and working towards effective, realistic, and legitimate solutions to legitimate, real, and undeniable structural and ideological problems of many kinds. If those of privilege feel excluded or attacked, then that means they need to investigate their privilege and what that means for larger social issues/spaces. For example, if one of the affluent white male students in your group felt attacked by a program that the MRC put on, before making a nonsensical charge like "reverse racism" or something of that nature he should consider why he felt attacked, what parts of his identity were being attacked, why a program would feel the need to address issues revolving around x component of his identity, and so on. Hopefully at some point the student would accept the fact that he has had real, tangible PRIVILEGES that have made his life easier/better in some way, and think about why other people didn't have those privileges, and what that meant for that person's life, and why the MRC feels the need to address such inequalities. If he is still unhappy, then at least he is in a place to engage with the MRC on a useful level, and not just mad because he thinks he got attacked for being a rich white man. Engagement with the MRC on that level would be rather refreshing, and productive.
Social justice is ultimately about seeing reality and engaging with/trying to change reality. It is not about attacking those with privilege, it is not about perpetrating a victim mentality in those less fortunate, it is about looking at real, legal, and undeniable structural inequalities as well as real, insidiously present, and also undeniable ideological inequalities and trying to change them. This is critical in a school that wants to get past the level of pretending it is diverse--it will help create visible social diversity, and thus it is critical that the new director of the MRC has such skills. Students with privilege are not excluded from that dialogue on the basis of their privilege, but on the basis of their unwillingness to accept their privilege and instead complain about social justice being mean and exclusive because we live in a post-racial society where anyone can be successful if they work hard enough so on and so forth. That is a problem that students at this school seem to struggle with, so I can understand why this demand would be frightening, but unfortunately it is long, long, long overdue.

y (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 16:24

*snaps*
well said.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 19:41

^previous *snaps* comment is to Liz! to clarify...

zigzag (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 17:31

"what parts of his identity were being attacked, why a program would feel the need to address issues revolving around x component of his identity"
See, this is my problem--why should his 'identity" be attacked? There is nothing inherently wrong with being male or white or straight or affluent or athletic! Now, those particular traits do confer power in this social context--and people should be aware of that--and it's all too true that people often abuse the power those traits give them in order to do very bad things, but it is literally demented to "attack" an identity that's such an abstract thing.

Unless you're some sort of determinist when it comes to identity (if you are, then you should go read the Lincoln-Douglass debates and consider which side you're coming down on), then there's no excuse for making people feel bad about who they are rather than what they do.

Bullshit Police (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 18:41

Did you miss the point of Liz's comment or did you not read it fully? Liz is not advocating for attacking identities... she's asking people to ask themselves why they feel like they are being attacked or why they feel like their identities are being attacked. If we look at the context around the quote you cited, that becomes clear. Also, if you read until the end of the comment, it is really clear.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being white, straight, affluent, or athletic! You are absolutely right, but where did Liz say that there is something wrong with being those things? Here is a list of fallacies--especially look at straw-man (for your sake): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

"If those of privilege feel excluded or attacked, then that means they need to investigate their privilege and what that means for larger social issues/spaces. For example, if one of the affluent white male students in your group felt attacked by a program that the MRC put on, before making a nonsensical charge like "reverse racism" or something of that nature he should consider why he felt attacked, what parts of his identity were being attacked, why a program would feel the need to address issues revolving around x component of his identity, and so on."

And more: " It is not about attacking those with privilege, it is not about perpetrating a victim mentality in those less fortunate, it is about looking at real, legal, and undeniable structural inequalities as well as real, insidiously present, and also undeniable ideological inequalities and trying to change them."

C.MAC (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 21:41

What does having a social justice background actually mean? The MRC, in it’s short life has had Latino, Black, Straight, Queer and White directors . Each of these director's objectives were to promote healthy conversations/ dialogues, creative programing, and safe spaces on campus. Social justice is more than just a code word, and it’s not about the blame or shame game. In higher education and specifically on a campus like Amherst College, it is about making sure that groups of students ( gay, straight, white, jock, or black) don’t feel targeted or marginalized. Oppression and inequality are complicated issues, and most social justice practitioners understand this. At an institution that produces the best and the brightest, it’s important to have conversations that are uncomfortable. Some conversations are hard to have, the goal is to have those difficult conversations, to be uncomfortable and yet very safe... to be vulnerable and honest in community.

The question is, how do you find a director who understands the complexity of diversity and inclusion on a college campus? How do you find the kind of director who is able for instance to bring both the queer students and the religious students to the talking table, to bring both white students and students of color together through programming ? How can Amherst have programming that finds commonality through difference? How can a director create the kind of MRC ethos that seeks first to understand and then to be understood? The issue is not whether to higher someone with a social justice background or not, the question really is, how does...how can this “ social justice ethos ” work at Amherst?

I hope the MRC vision is to acknowledge privilege, and yet work through the difficulty of understanding difference. poverty, rascicm, sexism won’t be solved on a small college campus in the valley, but learning the important tools of being in community with people who are not like you is invaluable. Being able to be challenged both academically and personally is healthy. Identity politics is every where, and community is often everything.

C.MAC

ZM (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 22:16

Liz is not advocating for attacking identities... she's asking people to ask themselves why they feel like they are being attacked or why they feel like their identities are being attacked."

And of course, Liz would undoubtedly feel attacked...if it were a white person who was criticizing affirmative action, for example.

This game is amusing.

It is literally undeniable that this school loves nothing more than to tout its statistical diversity as proof that privilege is meaningless

Who is "this school"? Since coming to "this school", I have heard little other than rhetoric which demands that certain groups perform self-flagellation for the conditions in which they were born with and had no say in, and other groups to feel entitled to demand that of the former.

and also undeniable ideological inequalities and trying to change them.

What does "ideological inequality" mean? Does that mean that this process will never stop until we all think exactly the same way? Hmm, where do I turn myself in for my concentration camp session?

Students with privilege are not excluded from that dialogue on the basis of their privilege, but on the basis of their unwillingness to accept their privilege and instead complain about social justice being mean and exclusive because we live in a post-racial society where anyone can be successful if they work hard enough so on and so forth.

In other words,
1. "If your beliefs are not sufficiently left-leaning and liberal, be ready to be excluded from the conversation."
2. "If you believe that hard work is most important in determining your success in today's society, also be ready to be excluded from the conversation."

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/07/2013 - 02:51

"Why is it, however, that attacks against students that are generally labeled as privileged do not garner such attention?" You've got to be kidding me? "Why is it?" Because they're privileged! The two events you describe are not and cannot be the same. When was the last time white powder was used to deny someone a job? This hyper-individualism is far too disturbing for someone who is supposed to have earned a position at Amherst. People of different social capital backgrounds have been treated differently by society, and treating them explicitly the same within the current imbalanced system will do nothing to alter a system in which certain individuals are fundamentally held up and others down. Pretending everybody is the same suddenly doesn't fix the problem; it only hides it. Do you expect to just leave these inequalities as is under this naive color-blind logic? It is literally offensive that you are Campus Inclusion Coordinator.

Tommy Wiseau (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/07/2013 - 04:54
Karielle (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/07/2013 - 11:40

Social justice is justice for everyone. The director of the MRC should be someone who understands this and does not put a political agenda over the needs of the student body.
The people you label as feeling "attacked" for the most part probably feel so because they are having their own beliefs destabilized. It's not the job of the MRC director to create programming to where they do not feel destabilized; that will likely not be effective programming. The ultimate goal is for people to have their beliefs about race/ethnicity, class, and privilege shaken and have the tools necessary to work through that (towards the aim of social justice, I guess) as a community.
None of this should be excluding or taken as such, even if that is how it feels for some. If we are all willing to work through the challenging of our own assumptions, we'll be able to more easily come together as a community to work towards social justice.
(Note: "challenging assumptions" does not mean, for instance, being a liberal and merely attending a conservative event and then reaffirming your liberal ideals as you denounce everything that was said at the event. You have to actually listen and re-examine your own ideas sometimes. This is just one example; there are many. It''s hard work.)

Amherst Student (not verified) says:
Sun, 03/10/2013 - 21:55

I think Katrin is trying to hard to be a republican that even *they* wouldn't agree with her. Social justice is for everyone, liberals and conservatives. Katrin, YOU are what is dividing this campus. You're trying too hard to be controversial.

LMFAO (not verified) says:
Mon, 03/11/2013 - 20:12

^^ Amherst Student. I could not have said it better myself. Katrin tries WAY. TOO. HARD. to be controversial. This article and her past reviews of affirmative action are entirely unfounded and basically driven by a willful ignorance that she hopes will come off as nuanced gleams of light in an otherwise liberal and democratic driven campus. Katrin honestly makes republicans look bad which is sad because we have dozens of brilliant conservatives on this campus who I love discussing issues such as this with -- Liz Monty and Tierney Werner for example. But this girl is not one of them. Just keep twirling the pink streak in your hair until graduation, honey. No one cares what you think.

Manuel (not verified) says:
Tue, 03/12/2013 - 15:52

Katrin, I'm really sorry for whoever got your views so twisted. I truly am. How did that happen by the way? May I add that it is just so cute how you actually think that Amherst "puts the liberal in liberal arts".

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Mon, 04/08/2013 - 12:02

"I do not mean to say that someone from a social justice background will intentionally create an atmosphere that is uncomfortable for certain groups of students on campus" -- oh you mean the privileged students? Because that's exactly what I want! The only way for this campus to be even remotely close to a community is for privileged students to understand and accept that they have privilege. Only then we can move forward. Amherst students need to understand that we are all, unfortunately, not equal.

Community Member (not verified) says:
Fri, 04/12/2013 - 11:57

Nice to see the progressive, tolerant liberals resort to vicious personal attacks on Katrin. I guess it's not hate speech when liberals say it.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 04/17/2013 - 21:26

Intertesting dialogue on a very sensitive subject. Being White in this country has it's priviledges. Being priviledged in this country also has it's priviledges. Being affluent and of Color in this country has it's priviledges until it is manifested in a way that goes against what the dominant culture believes. Understanding ones' Whiteness as a priviledge is a challenging concept. Basing opinions on People of Color, people who are marginalized, people who do not look like the dominant culture is the result of the lack of exposure to others who are different than the dominant culture or whose only exposure has been that of the person in authority vs. the person without authority (i.e. the maid, the driver, the employee,etc). Social justice is certainly not a catch all phrase used frivolously to mean redistribution. Social justice succinctly means inclusion and empowerment of all individuals and combating the social structures that persecute and oppress people without the means to defend themselves. So, the individual you seek must be able to comfotably teach what is means to be White, priviledged, and oppressed.

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